Emerging Trends | Leaders | Market Sizing
September, 2023 – While SmallSats continue to play an indispensable role in the broader space economy, NSG analysts see two areas where SmallSats will see growth over the next 10 years. Companies working to leverage SmallSats for on-orbit servicing and space traffic management will see demand for services rise as the need to maintain safe navigation in space will become increasingly important.
The space domain has seen an unprecedented surge in satellite deployments over the past decade. With more than 4,000 operational satellites in orbit, the concern for space debris and potential collisions has escalated. Spacecraft like the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Aeolus spacecraft are able to use on-board fuel to deliberately de-orbit in a controlled fashion. However, at any given time there are around 2,000 uncontrolled spacecraft in orbit. Last year, the FCC adopted a new rule requiring that satellites be de-orbited within five years of being decommissioned. While the rule is in conflict with NASA’s existing standards of practice, its enforcement will begin in fall 2024. Given the expense of maintaining a fuel reserve for end-of-life de-orbit, small satellites could be used to execute a planned de-orbiting as a service.
As the number of satellites and other commercial space activities increases, having tools to manage space traffic will be increasingly important. Government agencies such as NASA, the FCC, and the U.S. Space Force will likely need to invest heavily in technologies that preserve and enable freedom of navigation in space. While there are larger platforms aiming to conduct similar missions, SmallSats are an efficient and economical way to prevent congested orbits and reduce the need for satellites to conduct orbital maneuvers in order to avoid uncontrolled debris. So-called “swarm” technology enhances the efficiency of these types of operations, as swarms of SmallSats could be placed on orbit ahead of larger satellites and effectively “sweep” a clear path for the principle mission satellite. .